by Simone Sekers
CAN you judge the standard of food at a place by what the chef is wearing? And if there isn’t a chef, then who will give you the clues you seek? You can give a good sniff around the area of the extractor fans and give the place a wide berth if the smell of stale chip fat is the only give away, or you can see if there’s a slow-roast something on the menu on a Monday, which isn’t likely to have been cooking since early that morning. Monday isn’t a day when a good chef gets up early.
There’s a very simple give away, in fact, and I came across it recently, in the New Forest. This isn’t an area I know well, really, driving through it for the most part, dodging ponies and trailing cars dodging ponies. It always looks lovely, but we are usually in a hurry.
My brother works near there, and lives in the area, and when he suggested dropping in for a meeting at The Royal Oak at Fritham, so that all three of us could sign papers relating to the sale of my mother’s house, I assumed it was because it was for convenience’ sake. We conducted our meeting in an empty barn, overlooking a haymaking scene that looked too idyllic to be true.
We went back to the pub itself for some lunch. My brother doesn’t usually do lunch, but clearly this was a place that he knew well and they knew him. The landlady whizzed past, a hurried greeting was exchanged. We ordered the ploughmans, some pork pies, the locally brewed beer. All highly recommended by my brother.
The cheese was from the Lyburn farm just up the road. We got directions – it was so very very good. So were the home pickled onions, which were not hard shiny brown things drenched in eye-watering malt vinegar, but soft white strands of juicy onion mildly sharp and perfect with the mustard seed and nettle cheese. The pork pies were the best of their kind, but very best of all, and we’d already seen those clues, were the soft floury rolls, or baps I’d’ve called them further north. Freshly baked that morning, they were perfection, and did the cheese and onions justice.
The give away – the landlady’s apron, and her hands, were white with flour when she whizzed past us. No-one who simply opens a packet of rolls gets covered in flour – her apron certainly doesn’t. You could take mass-produced bread out of a bag while wearing a silk shirt and no-one would be any the wiser. That was a fine lunch, eaten outside, the sneezy scent of haymaking all around us.
We’d come across this sign of proper cooking before, in Italy, where the way to the restaurant was through the kitchen, and we were greeted by a voluminous lady who was covered in flour. There was even a dab on the end of her nose. The pasta, needless to say, was exceptional.
A few days after the Fritham experience we were at The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, for a friend’s birthday lunch. On the doorstep as we arrived, not to greet anyone in particular but because it’s his restaurant and he’s an amiable chap, stood the great Sean Hill. He gave us a smile, and went back to the kitchen. His blue chef’s apron was spotless, but that’s because he’s the boss.
He presided over a perfect range of dishes for lunch, on one of the hottest days of the year, the stuffed courgette flowers with a broad bean purée were exactly what you wanted on a day like that. It wasn’t better than lunch at Fritham, just different. At both places, miles apart geographically and gastronomically and in terms of price, the pursuit of perfection is absolute, and it shows. Just check out the aprons.